Food additives can be intimidating, controversial and confusing. It is important to know what kind of substances you are putting into your body and to understand why they are included in your food. According to the American Dietetic Association, additives are added to aid in “nutritional value, freshness and safety, convenience, affordability, color and flavor appeal.”
Vitamins and minerals are added to thousands of foods in the United States in order to help prevent nutritional deficiencies and diseases. Enrichment refers to adding back nutrients that were once in the food, but were lost due to processing. This commonly occurs in refined grain products by adding back iron. Fortification means to add nutrients to food that were never there, but processors would like to put in the food to assist in preventing disease. Some examples of fortification include adding iodine to salt or folic acid to breakfast cereal.
Preservatives are additives used to slow the spoilage of food from “air, bacteria, fungi, mold and yeast.” Preservatives increase the shelf life of your food, which can be very convenient. Tocopherols, citric acid, sulfites, calcium proprionate, and sodium nitrate act as antimicrobials, antioxidants or both.
Food additives can also include anticaking agents to prevent lumping, emulsifiers to keep fat and water molecules (which normally separate) blended together, humectants to help foods stay moist and soft, leavening agents to help food rise, maturing and bleaching agents to improve baking qualities, pH control agents to affect the texture, taste and safety and finally thickeners and stabilizers to improve texture. Colorings and flavorings are added to increase the appeal of food.
Food additives are heavily tested by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
If deemed safe for their intended use, the FDA regulates what types of food the additive can be used in, how much can be used and how it must be labeled. Under the Delaney Clause, if an additive is known to cause cancer in animals or humans it cannot be added to food in any amount. The FDA also keeps track of incidents with additives with the Adverse Reaction Monitoring System so as to gather information and decide if action needs to be taken. Good Manufacturing Practices limit the amount of additive that can be added to only that much needed for the desired result.
It is important for you as a consumer to be informed about the ingredients in your food. Although far from perfect, the FDA has put in place safeguards run by people who use the most current scientific research in order to keep you protected. Because the FDA attempts to take care of all of the people in the United States, it is therefore important to be responsible for your own health and to talk to your doctor if you have any questions or concerns.
Molly Roemer graduated with a degree in Dietetics from BYU and currently resides in Alamo. She enjoys food and family and seeks to enrich the lives of others through both. Email questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.